Do you ever find yourself looking at photographs out there and thinking, “Good lord, that’s one epic image!” It can take your breath away. And, if you’re a photographer, it can also be discouraging. Why don’t my images feel that epic? That’s common. All photographers go through that. I go through it nearly every day. We’re trying to improve our own craft and there’s always someone doing something that feels slightly out of reach. To make it tougher, most photographers hold their techniques pretty close to their chest. Or simply don’t know how to describe their process in a way that let’s you deep inside it.
And while I still sit in awe of many photographers out there, one of the things I think I do understand at this point is how to figure out in any given setting, what the “wow factor” potential of a scene is. I think of it as a kind-of Director of Photography skill, but for stills instead of movies. Some of this is just knowing a few technical tricks that add drama and impact to any image — which I wrote about in the article: Epic Photography Techniques — but there’s another part to it that is more about how you approach an environment. How you see what can be big about it. This is more about that.
So, the following are a few ways I tackle the big image. How I approach an environment and find that frame that feels epic and transcendent. I do believe it can be found almost anywhere, with the right approach. Hope it helps.
Plan On Being Epic.
The hardest thing to do as a photographer, in my opinion, is to walk into a new place, completely cold and know what to do. To be confronted with all kinds of objects, directions, elements and suddenly have to compose a shot is just incredibly difficult. The main reason for this is that you don’t know what you don’t know — that is, whatever you’re seeing, there’s a whole bunch of things you’re not seeing. Or are afraid you’re not seeing. And that can cause you to second guess yourself. Or become paralyzed with options.
Making it more difficult is that you don’t always know what your shot is going to look like once it’s taken. What you see with your eyes is often very different than what a photograph will convey. In a lot of ways, it feels like you’re just kind of guessing out there and hoping that something turns up when you get the images in.
Avoid this confusion whenever possible through preparation.
My first move, whether it’s an official shoot or I’m just messing around, is to do a walk around. I like to give myself a ton of time to see what’s going on. I’ll take test shots and stare at them. Sometimes I’ll go to a location a day early, shoot around, bring them in and then do some thinking while just staring at various angles. While it feels slightly less spontaneous, this kind of pre-planning is important to the creation of a well-composed frame. Because it’s work, like anything else. And though photographs often look like a captured moment, it usually takes a concerted effort to make it look that way.
Take this shot, for example:
Oh, hey, what a great moment, right? This couple just peering off into their future at the edge of a great architectural landscape? Hardly. I must have circled this area three or four times, and over at least three different visits to it before I took this shot. I really staked it out. And then after I knew exactly how I wanted to shoot it, I asked the couple to go stand there (and I sent them the image as a thank you).
Similar process for this recent photo:
This is at the Venice Basketball courts, where I spent countless hours wandering around, as its in my backyard. And this guy is someone I met while I was shooting around down there — he goes regularly for pick-up games. We got along and decided it would be fun to do a shoot together. But I wasn’t about to just say, “Hey, why don’t you dunk a few balls and I’ll shoot around it.” That approach would have forced a very quick composition and ended up in only semi-interesting images. His dunks would have been just as sweet, but my composition would have lacked the work necessary to make it interesting.
So, instead, I made an appointment to meet him the following weekend. And I did my homework before he got there. By the time he was laced up, I was already sitting on the ground with the shot framed up, ready for him to do his thing. I asked him to do an around-the-back dunk, as I wanted something a bit different than the usual raised arm, flying dunk. And the last piece of direction was to have him bend his legs a bit more so that he was isolated in the negative space a bit more. Here’s some earlier attempts before that final direction that helped it get to its final place:
The point is, don’t treat seeing as something that just comes to you on the spot, unless you absolutely have to. Plan it out. Even if it’s just for thirty minutes before your shoot. This way, the work you’re doing “on set” are the small directional things that are most important to the emotion of the shot — not the composition. That box is checked.
With all that said, sometimes you really do have to think quickly on-the-fly…
There are a number of settings where it’s harder to spend a lot of time framing up your shot — like when you’re traveling, in a difficult environment or shooting something fleeting (like these birds up above, which I’ll get to).
In my work as a creative director, I’m a believer in the power of killing good ideas to get to better ideas — it’s an important part of the creative process. Writers also do this as force of habit. But photographers, for some reason, get caught up in nailing a shot the first time. The truth is, there’s always time to kill a few ideas, even when you’re in the process of quickly shooting something. You just have to do it quickly.
Some people will say not to peek at your own shots while you shoot — I think the opposite can be helpful in this situation. Take a shot. Then look at it and be tough on yourself. Is it working? Would you frame it? Is it different? Then shoot again. You get faster at it the more you do it. To the point where you can snap off 5 or 6 shots in a minute, each time making an assessment, having each one push your composition with every new shift in perspective.
In this sequence, for example, you can see how pushing myself past an obvious shot lead to even better compositions. Here you practically feel the set of observations that lead me over to the wall and a re-focus of my eye to something with more singularity and purpose to it. When you’ve practiced this, a set like this happens within seconds of each other.
But sometimes even that is difficult because, like the people running through the birds above, you’re shooting something that is moving really fast through frame and you need to nail it with one take. This takes a lot of discipline — I still plan it out.
The “running through birds” shot above is actually a lot less spontaneous than it looks. The two in the image are models I’d cast for a client shoot. We were at the beach and I saw the congregation of seagulls and thought it’d be a nice shot to have them running through it. We discussed the shot, then I went to one side of birds (slowly) and sent the models to the other and had them sprint through toward me. Again, conceptualized first, then composed, then directed. Always a recipe for success. I just did all that very quickly — on break between our scheduled shots.
Expand Your Consciousness.
One more little secret about getting that big shot. There’s a tendency in photography to want to run solo. It’s almost like a source of pride, or even an emotional thing. The artist out alone with the camera evokes images of painters with their brushes, holed up in a studio somewhere, being an artist. But the truth is, most very great creative endeavors entails a crew of some type. It’s important that you know who your crew is and can call on them.
Think of it like you’re a director of a movie. Where’s your location scout? Your Director of Photography? Your actors? You don’t necessarily need all of it, but as much as you can pull in to your fold, the more ideas you’ll find get sparked, reaching into the creativity of other people.
The following photos all feature the same actor, Phil Lubin, who is one of my go-to collaborators. Actors have their own talent they bring to the table and I often treat our sessions together as a collaboration of ideas. I enjoy the process of talking about what we’re trying to capture, emotionally, and then letting an actor go try to get that with their own talent in the mix.
But it doesn’t have to be an actor — sometimes it’s just another photographer or even someone from a totally different field. I’ve worked with dancers, writers, documentary filmmakers, race car drivers… all kinds of folks. They all have interesting viewpoints that take me to new, unexpected areas in my work. So, next time you’re headed out to shoot, think about who you might bring with you who can add some creative juice to your process of seeing.